Portuguese fado star Mariza opened the NCSU Center Stage performing arts season at Stewart Theatre on October 5, singing for a surprisingly small but passionate audience. The queenly artist, who is used to playing sold-out houses, seemed a little taken aback by the small crowd but warmed to its enthusiasm, rewarding the multiple standing ovations with two encores. It was quite a coup for Center Stage and the Friends of World Music to have been able to book Mariza in Raleigh, and it was a great evening of music for those lucky enough to know to attend (despite the complete dearth of preview coverage in the local media). It was a fabulous concert.

Even if she had not sung one heart-burning note, it would have been quite a show. Although frequently likened to the 20th century queen of fado, Amália Rodrigues, Mariza is even more elegant, with a glamorous style and – despite her young age – the aura of a fully-formed diva. Tall and slender, hair dressed close to her head, and robed in exotic new designer versions of Portuguese traditional dresses and shawls, she is a powerful on-stage presence. The visual impact is augmented with well-thought-out staging and dramatic lighting, just as the aural impact of her flexible, warm voice is augmented by the rich accompaniment of her musicians. Mariza often uses instruments and pacing not traditional in fado, pushing it more toward jazz, but in her North American tour she is purveying a purer form, with Luis Guerreiro on Portuguese guitar (lute-shaped), António Neto on acoustic guitar ( guitarra classica ), and Laurindo de Sousa on acoustic bass. This last is not a stand-up bass but an instrument about the size of a cello, with a very long neck, shaped and held like a guitar. During a mid-concert break the men got to strut their stuff with an amazing instrumental piece, during which de Sousa flailed on that bass like nothing I’ve ever seen.

The instruments are expressive, but nothing quite matches the human voice for singing of human sorrows and joys. Mariza seems to have the kind of old soul that can bring a great depth of feeling from her voice and the listeners’ hearts. The closest thing we have to fado in spirit is the blues, but it is perhaps more comparable musically to tango and flamenco. The key difference that separates it from those forms is its Moorish root, fed by rhythms from Africa and its islands. Mariza, born in Mozambique (a former Portuguese colony), grew up in the home neighborhood of the fado, the Mouraria section of Lisbon. Like the blues, fado has a fairly limited set of traditional tunes to which many songs can be sung. While there are many beloved and well-known lyrics, fadistas often set new lyrics to old tunes. Mariza performed both.

In classic songs like “Há Festa Na Mouraria,” “Maria Lisboa,” and “Primavera” she proved herself the equal of the great Rodrigues, swelling her sound in the bell-like melodies or pulling it out like taffy into long thin lines of pure tone – and bursting forth again after dramatically held pauses. In a key way, she is very much like Rickie Lee Jones or Laura Nyro – the songs all sound somewhat alike, but each one is loaded to the maximum with its own particular emotion. Mariza has a remarkable range in several areas: soft to loud; tender to bawdy, smooth to rough, deep to high. Even without a grasp of Portuguese, you know just what she’s singing about, and the feeling ambushes you.

This was particularly true of many the songs from her newer CD, Fado Curvo . Following the almost incredible success of her first CD, Fado Em Mim , Mariza immersed herself in both classic and contemporary Portuguese poetry and found numerous poems to set to fado music. Perhaps the most beautiful of these in concert was the haunting “O silêncio da guitarra,” which brought tears to more eyes than my own. It was, she said, a very young poem set to a very old fado. Not only does this artist maintain the glorious repertoire of an ancient art form, but she also replenishes it with new material and her new style in a way that makes the neighborhood for her music as wide as the world.